Marketing ethics (failed): The Postum story

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postum ad

atlantic postamThis Atlantic Magazine article headline caught my eye:  The Devious Ad Campaign that Convinced Americans that Coffee was Bad for Kids.  The story is that breakfast cereal magnate W.R. Post conceived the idea that he could get parents to purchase a coffee substitute, Postum, by developing the pseudoscientific myth that coffee consumption would harm children, and the solution, of course, would be to purchase his coffee substitute.

The story worked. People believed it.

“Children ‘brought up’ on Postum are free from the evil effects of caffeine—the habit-forming drug—in coffee and tea,” a 1910 ad informed parents, beginning a pitch that would probably go over fairly well with many a Whole Foods shopper today.

“Postum is made of clean, hard wheat, skillfully roasted, including the bran-coat which contains the Phosphate of Potash (grown in the grain) for building healthy brain and nerve tissue.

“Begin early to insure a healthy nervous system for the little ones.”

postum ad

Trouble is, the story had no science behind it. There is no evidence that coffee really harms children, though the myth remains in place today.

Atlantic postum story
The modern Postum — a niche product sold largely in Utah (to Mormons)

Of course, few people consume Postum any more, though here we learn the marketing and business story evolves. It seems, especially, that Mormons have a religious prohibition against hot beverages, and so when a niche manufacturer purchased the trademark and reintroduced the product recently, the first retailers to carry it were in Utah.

I suppose Post’s marketing crime (I think it would be considered a crime today, if the Food and Drug Administration regulators could catch the faulty claim) is nowhere as severe as the infamous “doctor” cigarette ads of the 40s and 50s.

Conversely, recently genetic profiling service 23andme.com has been nailed by the FDA for making any health-related claims for its DNA testing kit.

I think most AEC marketers stay clear of these ethical minefields, most of the time, and it is rather hard to pull the wool over the eyes of institutional procurement managers/committees, though sometimes there are rule-bending conspiracies to allow “favourite” contractors and designers to maintain their status in supposedly free and open competitive bidding systems. But myth building is part of the marketing mantra — and these historical examples show how effective (and possibly harmful) the practices have been.

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